American dreams

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  January 19, 2010

The touring cast, led by Kyle Beltran as Usnavi, exudes energy and attitude and executes Andy Blankenbuehler's crackling choreography with sexy aplomb. There are a couple of melting duets for Rogelio Douglas Jr. and Arielle Jacobs as Benny and Nina. And the George Washington Bridge stretches impressively toward the horizon, illuminated by Howell Binkley's dusky lighting. Just don't go looking for verisimilitude or complexity and your toes will be kept a-tap by the show's irresistible mix of innocence and rhythm.

The meta-theatrical [title of show] (presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion through February 13) is an unlikely New York hit built on its own sheer unlikelihood. Composer Jeff Bowen and writer Hunter Bell, friends and collaborators joined at the nerd bone by their adoration of musicals, decided three weeks before its deadline to enter the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival competition. Under the gun and without an idea, the pair produced an outline of "a musical about two guys writing a musical" (in which they also starred with two female friends) that, albeit formulaic, is cheekily self-conscious, musically catchy, and could not be more Pirandellian unless Pirandello had been gay.

[title of show], which never did get a proper moniker, went on to become a 2006 Off Broadway hit, the subject of a video blog, and, briefly in 2008, a denizen of the Great White Way. A compilation of brainstorming-slacker scenes and mostly staccato tunes or creamy harmonies pounded out by a single keyboardist (Will McGarrahan), the show, wearing irony on one sleeve and homage on the other, is a likable, low-rent exploration of the creative process that garners most of its humor from pulling the rug out from under itself.

Bowen and Bell, though they expanded the material to include the thrill of victory and the divisiveness of commercial pursuit, could not play themselves forever. At SpeakEasy, with artistic director Paul Daigneault at the helm, Jordan Ahnquist and Joe Lanza, who wink as well as they sing, exude the aura of true aspirants. And they are ably abetted by lush-toned Amy Barker and quirky Val Sullivan in getting this much-hoped-for baby born again.

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